My dad, Des Bettany, after seeing action in Europe in WW2 was evacuated from Dunkirk and posted to North Malaya. He was eventually imprisoned by the Japanese at various prisons camps on Singapore Island with some 100,000 other prisoners of war (POW’s) . You may well ask, how did he make it through all of this? Well, he painted to keep his sanity.
From out of the misery, starvation, exploitation and brutality that resulted in so much loss of life and injury (physical and mental) a series of artworks that helped Des and his mates survive the ordeal has now come to light in a family collection. This artwork of his service life before and after the Capitulation of Singapore is a range of fascinating illustrations, done often with humour by Des himself.
However, while painting to keep his head, he nearly lost it, as he was also painting political cartoons of the Japanese and hiding these. They were found and after some quick talking and who knows what else occurred, Des was warned by Major Col Saito, if he ever painted like this again, he would get a short haircut (be beheaded). We are sure he was punished but he, like so many other ex POW’s chose not to share the horrors they went through with others. I guess in telling of the horrors, they just relive them again.
This new website has been put together by us, Des’ family, as a tribute and to help raise awareness of what the POWs went through, as seen through the eyes of one man, Des Bettany. It also give a rare insight on how others kept ‘sane’ by looking forward to such things as: The Changi University; The Library; The Theatre and Musical Programs; Changi Industries; working to help mates by making rubber souls for boots or limbs for amputees; getting up to mischief: sabotaging their own work; or partaking in their Faith.
After 70 years in a cupboard, at last, this artwork is available to all who have access to the internet. Now that has been ‘liberated’ all the artwork can be viewed at www.changipowart.com
A brief 4 minute video summarizing dad’s work can be viewed, go to www.changipowart.com/videos click on the ‘Channel 7 Today Tonight Program’.
Please share this site so the message gets out to many of what these men went through and some of the strategies they employed to keep sane and to survive. We also honour & remember those who didn’t make the journey back home.
Des Bettany’s artwork, including some of his theatre programme covers are heavily featured as part of our Rice and Shine series.
Meanwhile, over a thousand miles away in Thailand and Burma, the POWs building the railway were entering the “Speedo Period”—the desperate push by the Japanese engineers to get the railway completed to the new earlier deadline set by Tokyo. During this period, the POWs would work extended hours and seven days a week without adequate food or medical supplies. Corporal punishment was harsh and frequent. As a consequence, sickness and death increased at an alarming rate, so urgent calls went out to Singapore for more POW workers.
On 20 March, massive evacuations from Changi began. “D” Force, which contained 2,750 British and 2,250 Australians—”fit men for heavy manual labour in a malarial climate”—was the first to leave for Up Country destinations. “There were emotional scenes,” recalled Murray Griffin, “as the parties moved out with the concert party band playing ‘Now is the Hour’ and ‘Waltzing Matilda’.”[i]
A week later, “E” Force, consisting of troops from the Southern Area and the A.I.F., was sent to Kuching, Borneo. 500 Australians were then sent on to Sandakan on the other side of the island (see future blog on Borneo).
Between 18-26 April, “F” Force made up of British and Australian troops, which included Padre Foster-Haig and members of his musical group (inc. the pianist/symphony orchestra conductor, Renison and the singers, Aubrey King and George Wall, etc.), were sent to northern Thailand (see Chapter 2, “Jungle Shows Thailand” in my online book for a more detailed account of the fate of this group).[ii]
On 25 April 1943, “G” Force (various groups) was sent to Japan where there was also a huge labor shortage.[iii]
Then, with still urgent calls for more workers for the railway, “H” Force, made up of British and Australian POWs “with as many officers as possible with bridge-building and road-making experience” was sent to Thailand between 5-17 May.[iv] Among these troops would be the artist Ronald Searle, the female impersonator Michael Curtis, the actor/director Capt. Wilkinson,and cartoonist George Sprod—and, in a break with precedence, two performers from the A.I.F. Concert Party: the singer, Doug Mathers and the ventriloquist, Tom Hussey.
On 15 May, “J” Force went off. Speculation was that they were headed for Japan.[v]
When these deployments were complete, the number of POWs left in Changi had changed dramatically:
Changi Camp, in February 1942, had held approximately 52,000 prisoners of war. By the end of May 1943, however, most of them had departed and were working for the Japanese in Burma, Thailand, Borneo, and Japan, those remaining in Changi numbered only 5550 officers and men.[vi]
And many of those POWs were either in hospital or in convalescent wards so unable to fulfill camp duties.[vii]
 That Wilkinson is on “H” Force seems indisputable. In my online book, I mistakenly placed him on “F” Force.
The 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment in the Malaya Campaign and as Far East Prisoners of War 1941-1945.
by Ken Hewitt
Ken’s research into his father’s military career with the Leicestershire Regiment started in 2006 and quickly led to an interest in all 936 men of the 1st Battalion who fought in the Malaya Campaign, many of whom became Far East prisoners of war under the Japanese.
In 2015, to commemorate VJ70, he presented his research findings to an audience of 100 FEPOWs, descendants, Regimental veterans and other interested parties. Following the talk, he was strongly encouraged to document his findings more formally and now, seven years later after further research, writing and re-writing, sorting of photographs and creation of charts and maps, his book, Tigers in Captivity, is finally published.
The book starts with the Battalion’s move from India to Malaya in early 1941 and continues with the defensive actions and withdrawal, from Jitra in the north to Singapore in the south over a 55-day period following the Japanese invasion of Malaya in December 1941. It describes the early encounters with the enemy, the chaotic withdrawal from Jitra and the amalgamation with the 2nd Battalion East Surrey Regiment to form the British Battalion. The subsequent defensive actions of the British Battalion at Kampar, Batang Berjuntai and Batu Pahat and on Singapore Island are all addressed. It continues with the eventual surrender of Singapore, the so called “Impregnable Fortress”. Those who are known to have escaped the island around this time are identified and, where known, their ultimate fate recorded.
Nearly 700 men of the battalion were now prisoners of war and Tigers in Captivity goes on to describe the movements of the captives around the Far East – the work parties in Singapore, the transfers of men to Japan and other Far East countries and the exodus to Thailand to build the infamous death railway. Even after the railway was completed the horrors continued with malnutrition, illness and disease, hard labour, brutality and ‘hellship’ transfers to Japan. Liberation finally arrived in August 1945 and the book addresses the repatriation of these now ex-POWs and the post war situation in which they found themselves.
Every man who was killed in action, or who died as a prisoner of war, is remembered by name at the appropriate point in the text and specific information on the circumstances of his death and grave location is given.
Summary Charts present the statistics of the Malaya Campaign and the subsequent captivity. Movement Tables list the men in each of the POW movement parties and an A-Z listing of all 936 men summarises their fate and movements during this period. An extensive bibliography lists the sources of information and provides readers with a signpost to further relevant reading.
The main purpose of the book is to enable descendants of these men to develop a better understanding of the Malaya Campaign and the period of captivity which their relative experienced. Not only is Tigers in Captivity the definitive historical record of the 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment during this period, it provides a tangible ‘family’ memorial not only to the men who died at the time but also to those who survived and are no longer with us.
I am currently working on two FEPOW projects which may be of interest to this community.
The first is a documentary concept to mark the 80th anniversary of the completion of the Thai-Burma Railway in October 2023. We had the honour of interviewing a UK FEPOW in February and we hope to have more news on that in the coming weeks and months.
The second project is a book to also mark the 80th anniversary next year and would be primarily based on a final voices theme. If approved, this book would be based on the voices of FEPOWs that have not been previously heard (i.e. not been published outside of family and friends). I have had the privilege of interviewing families of POWs around the world over these last 18 months and reading extracts and accounts about this remarkable generation.
My grandfather was a FEPOW, Captain Gilbert Inglefield, who I did not know that well and subsequently as I got older I wanted to learn more about – so there is a personal attachment to this. It is an obvious point to be made but one which I feel is important to the point of this book and that is there are so few FEPOWs still with us and that number is sadly diminishing week in, week out. Whilst all but a few are still with us, they remain the last human link to these extraordinary set of events that took place in Asia-Pacific between 1941-45.
I am looking to speak with families/descendants of FEPOWs who may have written summaries and accounts from their fathers/grandfathers – which have not been previously published outside of family and friends. The point of this is to potentially allow families who through their fathers/grandfathers can perhaps teach future generations about this specific piece of WWII history.
I am based in Boston but can happily chat to suit UK hours, if there is anyone who may be interested.
Len was a proud Sunderland man through and through. Born in one of the world’s great industrial cities, he had a lifelong passion for the power of education to improve one’s circumstances. He also had a passion for music, which was to help save him and others in his time of greatest trial. And he was a born story-teller all his adult life, to his friends and comrades, to the generations of children he taught, and to the historians and researchers who increasingly beat a path to the door of his bungalow in the Wearside village of West Herrington which he loved and in which he ended his days.
Born to hardworking god-fearing parents, he had three sisters and attended West Park Central School. He already loved music and was a chorister at Bishopwearmouth Church, becoming the senior boy and soloist. Leaving school during the Great Depression, he found work alongside his father in a timber factory. But he above all wanted to be a teacher, and took evening classes studying Science, Maths, English and French. When years later this writer asked him what other than music he mostly taught in his later career, he smiled and said “just about everything, really.” He also found the Empire Theatre had cheap tickets for operas. He attended “Madam Butterfly”, and cried. Whenever he heard it again in later life, it still brought him to tears.
With war looming, in early 1939 he joined a new Territorial Regiment of Artillery and trained as a signaller. On 1 September 1939 the Regiment was called to active service, and in 1940 reconstituted as an Anti Tank Regiment and moved to home defence duties in Norfolk. There followed over a year of moving around the UK, until finally on 28 October 1941 the regiment embarked at Avonmouth to cross to Halifax in Canada, and then again headed round the Cape of Good Hope to Bombay. En route Len entertained with his proudest possession, his banjo. And en route they also heard of the attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941.
On 4 February 1942 Len’s convoy was attacked eight miles from Singapore by Japanese aircraft and all were forced to abandon ship. Len, a non-swimmer, floated in his cork lifebelt towards a boat which hauled him and others aboard and took them into the chaos of the last days of the defence of Singapore. On 15 February Len and his unit learned of the garrison’s unconditional surrender, and Len entered 41 months of Japanese captivity.
The details of that harrowing time are recounted in Len’s memoir “A Wearside Lad in World War II.” He was moved first to Changi, then to the River Valley Camp to work clearing debris from the city. He had lost his precious banjo when his ship sank, but now built a new one from scrap materials, and later built a guitar which he taught himself to play. He also began to compose music.
On 24 October 1942 began the long rail journey to a series of camps in western Thailand, where Len and his work battalion were to construct the Burma-Siam railway. Len would later recount the daily horrors in his typical understated way—stifling heat, forced labour with few tools, a poor and highly inadequate diet of rice, tea, and “gippo” (basically hot water with added scraps), sickness, voracious insects, vermin, and beatings by the guards. Len like his comrades contracted typhus. He also had his appendix removed, without anaesthetic, by the legendary surgeon “Weary” Dunlop. Len kept himself going, and his comrades entertained, with his guitar music. He was by nature a forgiving man, but he said later to this writer “I cannot put in my book everything that happened, because it’s meant for my family. And I cannot forgive the Japanese what I saw them do to my friends.”
In April 1945, when Japan was clearly losing the war, Len and those of his comrades who had not died on the railway were moved to Khiri Khan in the Gulf of Siam, and thence into the interior, to work on completing the cross-isthmus Mergui Road. He said he found conditions much worse there than on the railway—poorer food and much more sickness. But he survived. On 15 August Japan surrendered, the guards were seen busily burning records, and Len and other survivors were marched back to Khiri Khan. At the end of the month a British officer arrived at the camp and began the long process of getting Len and others home. He travelled via Rangoon (where the day his ship left local radio played “Monsoon”, a piece he had composed during imprisonment) and the long sea voyage back to Liverpool, and recuperated in Ryhope General Hospital in Sunderland. There he met a lovely nurse called Ruby Pounder, and married her.
After the war Len achieved his ambition of becoming a schoolmaster, and for 17 years was Headmaster of Hasting Hill School in Sunderland. He and Ruby, who was to pre-decease him, had a son David and a daughter Jennifer. He always retained his love of music. He loved family gatherings: Jennifer described to this writer a gathering of over 90 in the extended family, where Len appeared as a sort of Pied Piper, entertaining everyone. He also remained committed to Far East POW organisations like COFEPOW, visiting the sick and needy and appearing at regular veteran gatherings throughout the North-east.
As he grew older interest seemed to grow in the experiences of so many young men who had fought in the Far East War 1941-45. Len was tireless in addressing groups in his factual understated way, “telling it how it was”. He had an endless fund of tales from the time in the camps which brought the story home to listeners young and old; of course he was never without his guitar, and some music to play. He was awarded the British Empire Medal in 2009, and as a proud Sunderland man opted to be invested by the Lord Lieutenant at Sunderland City Hall.
Finally he was amazed by the historians who came to see him to record his experiences. He gave his last interview, shortly before his final illness, just three months ago. The historian wrote afterwards that he was struck by Len’s power of recall, his sharpness, and his positive attitude, to which along with his love of music the historian attributed Len’s survival when so many others had perished in the camps. Len said to him:
“I’ve had a wonderful life. I wouldn’t change a moment of it.”
By Andrew Easterbrook, a documentary researcher in Vancouver, Canada
Among the possessions my grandfather, Joe Harper, saved until the end of his life was a photograph taken at Clacton on 8 Nov 1941, days before his deployment overseas. The image shows his 251 Battery of the 85th Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, who were fated to sail to Singapore and become prisoners of the Japanese.
The photo came into my possession when my grandmother died in 2009. Since then, I have often wondered what happened to the 140 smiling young men in the picture. What were their fates? Without their names, an examination of the usual official sources wasn’t much help. The breakthrough came when I discovered a list of surnames written in pencil on the back of an envelope Joe received from my grandmother, while he was a POW on the Burma-Thailand railway in the summer of 1944. Knowing that Joe was a meticulous man, I counted the names: exactly 140 in all. They were even arranged in six rows. It was a clue to the identities of the names of the men in the photo! With an initial list of names, the hard work could begin.
For this I teamed up with Mick Luxford, Editor of the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars (QOOH) Association’s newsletter, and a fount of knowledge concerning Oxfordshire Regiments – from which 251 Battery originally came. The nominal roll of the 85th at the National Archives in Kew filled in some of the blanks, but some names on my list were duplicates, and others were unreadable. Clearly some detective work would be needed. A trawl of primary and secondary published and unpublished material, along with a deep dive into Regimental publications and memories, slowly began to produce results. After much hard work, we believe that we have identified 122 of the men in the Battery photograph, with nine ‘probables’, and another nine currently unknown.
The 140 men from all over Britain assembled on that autumn day met fates that were as varied as those of the British Army in Singapore as a whole. Some were killed in action in Singapore shortly after their arrival. Many went to Thailand to work on the Burma-Thailand Railway; many of those died while doing so. Some went further, to Taiwan and Japan; some of those men died in hellships on the way. But many returned to Britain, lived long lives, and had families just like mine.
We have begun to reach out to some of families of men we have identified, many of whom are unaware of the photograph, and are delighted to see a new image of their relative. Work continues to identify the remaining men and find their families. Our small group of researchers next hopes to unearth the missing pre-departure photos of the other three Batteries of the wartime 85th (45, 270 and 281), and begin work to identify those men. If your relative was in the 85th (especially 251 Battery), or you know of those pictures, please do get in touch.
Whilst searching for an enamel mug on eBay, I happened across a group of items that appeared to belong to a FEPOW veteran. I searched the name and confirmed they did indeed belong to a FEPOW. Although not something I would normally be looking to buy, I purchased the items in order to keep them together as I feared the group being split up as, sadly, this does happen from time to time with military groups. I contacted the seller who was not related to the original owner but had purchased the items from a general auction.
I have a good knowledge of WW2 and, in particular military artefacts, but my wife is more knowledgeable than myself on the Far East campaign and POW’s experiences having had two great uncles that served in the Far East. One served in the Royal Marines 44 Commando, the other was Raymond John Marks (Royal Engineers), who sadly died whilst in captivity after the fall of Singapore. I have some experience researching the service of other family members and soldiers from different periods in history, so I helped research the history of my wife’s great uncle’s service.
These items belonged to Lt. John Fredrick Wright, the son of a Royal Navy Surgeon Captain; he was born in August 1919, and with the outbreak of War in 1939, he was a student living with his parents in Bournemouth. His POW report card has his occupation as an automobile engineering trainee. In 1940 he was commissioned and joined the Royal Army Service Corps attached to 196 Field Ambulance Royal Army Medical Corps; the RASC provided drivers for their ambulances. Lt. Wright travelled to Singapore with 196 FA part of 18th Division and was there during the fall of Singapore. I have managed to download several documents pertaining to his service; these include his captivity report, his record card and a number of camp rosters where he is listed. I have recently begun looking into the camps listed on his captivity report. Other than those, I currently have no further knowledge of his time in captivity or his life after WW2. I am still researching him, so I would be interested to hear from anyone who can provide any further information about him. It would be particularly special to be able to add a photo of him to the collection.
The group of items, pictured below, consists of:
His British Army issue 08 large kit bag with his name and number written in many places and numerous field repairs.
Mess tins, one with his name inscribed, and on the other his name, rank, number on one side and “18 DIV RASC SINGAPORE 15th Feb 1942”, and his unit and division insignia on the opposite side.
His 1939 dated fork with his initials.
His army issue WW2 water bottle, the stopper has been replaced with a bamboo one. His name is on the cloth cover, and the harness has a field repair plus the addition of a leather bottom. His initials are written on the harness’s underside and are not sun-faded like the rest of the water bottle.
His army issue white enamel mug which still has his fibre dog tag attached with string.
There are two clothing items: his “Jap Happy” loincloth and non-issue handmade shorts, possibly camp made.
The following few items may indicate a medical link, firstly a set of unidentified kidney-shaped tins use unknown. The smaller section is able to sit on the edge of the main tin. Nearly all British army items are usually marked; however, these are not.
Next, there is an ivory tongue depressor, and finally, a piece of bamboo of unknown purpose that has been hollowed out at one end, creating a vessel for maybe a medicine or ointment. It has a staple in the bottom, perhaps to enable it to be hung up. Any suggestions as to its use would be appreciated. Given that these items are included, I think that Lt. Wright served in some sort of medical capacity. Although he was not RAMC, he was attached to them, and with his father being a Surgeon Captain RN, he may have had some basic knowledge or just willing to serve as an orderly.
These items no doubt meant a lot to Lt. Wright as they were his worldly possessions for a number of years. Understandably many would be only too happy to part with any reminders of their time in captivity. For some, it might not have been easy to part with items that were so important to them after many years in captivity. He kept that simple, inconspicuous piece of bamboo, and the mug is still stained from use as is the clothing, one mess tin retains the burn marks of use, and the web material of packs holds dust from the Far East. Untouched, they tell the story of their use. They have not been cleaned, washed, or polished bright in later years; they look to have been brought home and just put away. Perhaps a reminder that he did not want to part with, but equally just wanted to put away.
Handling these historic items is a tangible link not just to Lt. J.F. Wright, but also Raymond John Marks and every other Far East Prisoner of War. I plan to donate the items to somewhere they can be preserved for the future and commemorate Lt Wright’s service.
Thank you to Meg Parkes for suggesting this post and identifying the loincloth, also thanks to Emily Sharp for help with this post and translating the report card.
Fourteen years’ ago, I began recording interviews with Far East prisoner of war (FEPOW) veterans for the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM). Sixty-seven interviews later, during lockdown centenarian FEPOW Bert Warne accepted an invitation to be interviewed.
I spoke to Bert, who lives in Southampton, via Zoom In early November 2020. Interviewing anyone of such a great age is a privilege. However, when relying on technology, it’s not without its challenges. Bert’s voice is strong, and he speaks quickly with a broad Hampshire accent, which when coupled with a fractional time delay initially led to some confusion. Regrettably, worried that he could not hear me, I ended up shouting at him!
Like thirty-seven of the previous interviewees, Bert was captured in Singapore and later sent to Thailand. Every interviewee has a unique story to tell, Bert mentioned something about the railway that I’d not heard before:
Well then what happened was, when we went from that camp [Konkoita] we didn’t go back on the barge and what we done we used to travel, when we built that railway you could only go so far on what you call a steam locomotive. The thing is they’re heavy see, they’re a terrific the weight you see. So if you’d have gone up country and put a steam train on, it’d have fell through you see, ‘cos it was green see [referring to the wood used to build it]. So, what the Japs did do, which I thought was quite a good idea, their diesel trucks, their lorries, what they done they converted the wheels from the trucks to go on the railway, you see. So, what we used when we were on the railway, when you talk about people being transported on the railway, they weren’t transported with steam locomotives, they were transported by lorries.
Puzzled, I emailed members of the Researching FEPOW History Group (RFHG) to see if anyone had heard about these truck trains. Without delay our Dutch research colleague Michiel Schwartzenberg, emailed:
“He is talking about the ‘Flying Kampong’ a diesel lorry adapted for railroad usage.
The diesel-powered lorries were very practical, and to the Westerners a novelty. The Japanese had to devise something that could move heavy goods along the railway, as there was no road or a dependable river…. There was another advantage as a lorry can move short distances. A steam train has to develop pressure, power and then can move long distances. Obviously, a train can move much heavier loads, but on the railway this was restricted to 10 boxcars”.
Michiel sent these photographs:
Keith Andrews also responded:
“They were certainly used in some sections of the Railway. Capable of pulling four of the specially built wagons they were excellent for transporting maintenance parties or Japanese troops. They had been used by track laying groups and were in use until the end of the war. I will see what else I can dig up”.
(NB Bert had mentioned that the trucks could only go about 40 miles before they needed diesel).
And he contacted Terry Manttan the manager of the Thailand Burma Railway Centre in Kanchanaburi, who added:
“The converted lorries (truck-trains or “flying kampongs”) were mostly used for short to medium distance movements of working groups of PoWs as they were much more versatile and more readily available for such a function”.
If anyone has any further information about the Flying Kampongs do please share.
My research may be summarised as a discourse that examines Thailand’s transition from the 1932 coup d’état through subsequent turbulent years leading up to the Japanese accessing its territory at the start of the south-east Asia War. It follows Thailand’s role during the war and culminates with the outcome of end-of-war peace treaties. It is divided into five parts.
The first part briefly considers the years before the 1932 coup to show how the aspirations of successive monarchs established relationships with the West, particularly Great Britain and France. This takes into account the conclusions of gifted and talented Thai students who were studying in Europe and wanted to change Thailand’s monarchy from ruling with absolute power to one in which the monarch was governed by a constitution. The events prior to the coup d’état are studied.
The second part examines the period from the coup up to December 1941 when Japanese military forces entered Thailand. Difficulties between the civilian and military factions of government arose as army officer Pibul Songkhram became prime minister at the end of 1938. Nationalistic policies dominated his domestic agenda, and the international landscape evolved as diplomatic relations with Great Britain and the United States were tested against a background of increasing influence from the Japanese. The atmosphere intensified following a brief military conflict with France over a border dispute between Thailand and French Indochina.
The third part looks at the events leading to the Thai government permitting Japanese military access into its territory as it advanced towards Malaya and Burma at the start of the south-east Asia war. This was a crucial period during which Thailand abandoned its policy of neutrality and became a Japanese ally. The military and diplomatic response from the Western allies to Japan’s advance is closely examined with emphasis on Great Britain’s response to Thailand’s predicament and its corresponding attempt to defend Malaya.
The fourth part studies Thailand’s role throughout the War. Attention is given to the broadening rift between the military and civilian factions of the government as Japan’s idealistic promises caused frustration and economic chaos. Thailand declared war on Great Britain and the United States. The Seri Thai resistance movement was organised by Pridi Banomyong. He made contact with Great Britain and the United States and convinced them that the Seri Thai could become a credible fighting force in the defeating Japan in Thailand. Prime minister Pibul lost domestic popularity through eccentric attempts to westernise Thai society. He realised Japan was losing the war and disassociated himself from them but lost his position to a new government that supported the allies. During this period thousands of Japanese Prisoners of War and civilian Romusha were sent to Thailand to construct the Thai-Bura railway. The response from the Thai government and the attitude of its people to the treatment and cruelty dispensed by the Japanese towards these men is examined.
The final section considers Thailand’s post-war agreements with the British, American and French and concludes with a summary of Thailand’s achievements as it looks towards its future.
The research draws on published books by respected historians, documented personal accounts and theses that are available in the public domain and records from the National Archives Kew.
Remembering captivity across Southeast Asia and the Far East during the Second World War